Thursday, November 29, 2018

The Walk Out

Yesterday we got up before dawn to watch the sunrise at ABC.  The moon and Venus were bright, and we could see small groups of trekkers with headlamps making their way up from Macchapuchhare Base Camp.  I am not much for sunrises, but it was a beautiful transition.  There were scores of trekkers actively engaged in taking dozens of pictures.  At times I could hardly watch as people posed for pictures  on the edge of the moraine.  They were standing on a frozen lip of earth overhanging 100 metres of nothing.

We walked 2000 metres down from ABC yesterday.  It was relatively uneventful, although we did see two groups of monkeys and a couple of other animals that may have been giant squirrels.

Today we continued our descent to 1300 metres, where the climate is gentle and pleasant.  From our guesthouse we have been watching “honey hunters” collecting wild honey.  One fellow is on a ladder 50 feet down a 150 foot cliff.  He is armed with some smoking vegetation and a basket in which to place the honeycomb.  This site is harvested only twice a year, so our timing is fortuitous.  I asked our host how much honey is being harvested through this hazardous process: two or three kilograms.

Monday, November 26, 2018

Annapurna Base Camp

It was a pretty three hour walk, with 900 metres of climbing, to reach the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC).  We crossed stretches of old snow in avalanche chutes, before bursting into the sunshine above the Macchapuchare Base Camp.  Helicopters buzzed overhead, much closer than they were yesterday.

There are four lodges located at ABC, at an elevation of 4130 metres.  There is not a cloud in the sky, the wind is light, and it feels warm (although the snow and ice are just starting to melt in the sun).  ABC is completely ringed by close mountains, several of them 7000 to 8000 metres.  It is magnificent here.

I strolled up from the lodges and found myself in a forest of monuments to climbers and trekkers that have died here.  Percentage wise, Annapurna is the deadliest of the 8000 metre peaks, with only about 200 successful climbs and 70 climbing deaths.  The plaques and monuments are certainly not an inducement to “Seek the Freedom of the Hills” as one popular climbing guide is titled.

Sinuwa to Deurali

It was a pleasant climb through a mature hardwood and bamboo forest today.  We are in a narrow valley leading  into the Annapurna sanctuary, so despite the clear conditions we did not have direct sun until 10:30 am.  There are monkeys in the forests we passed through, but unfortunately we did not see them.

All morning there were helicopters thumping past us in both directions.  It is only 15 minutes by helicopter from Pokhara to the Annapurna Base Camp (ABC), but the cost is US$1500 per person return.  I was told that tourists fly up to ABC, wander around and take pictures for an hour while the chopper does a cargo run, and then fly back to Pokhara.  Some people simply have too much money for the good of themselves and the planet.

We passed a couple of signs that advised that for religious reasons beef, buffalo, and chicken should not be brought into the Annapurna sanctuary (you are welcome to bring all the mutton and goat you can carry.)  At guesthouses since then I have indeed noticed that only vegetarian food is on offer.  While I wish to be respectful of local religious beliefs, I still have two unopened packages of beef jerky that I am loath to throw away.  I commit to not opening or eating them while we are in the sanctuary, but if I am injured in the next few days, blame it on the jerky.

Sunday, November 25, 2018

Chiule to Sinuwa

Today was rather uneventful, but we did have some of the nicest weather we have experienced.  It often gets partly cloudy starting at midday, but today was blue sky from dawn to dusk.  Because we were at moderate altitudes of 1800 to 2400 metres, it was also quite a pleasant temperature, possibly 17 degrees in the early afternoon.

The quality of the light had me grinning like an idiot and snapping pictures all day.  The simplest object seemed to glow in a compelling way, particularly in the early morning.

We encountered groups of trekkers frequently during the day, but the trails were not as overwhelmed as yesterday.

Saturday, November 24, 2018

Ghorepani to Chiule: the road more taken by

The walk today was distinct from previous days in a couple of ways.  In the first place, the vegetation was much richer.  It is apparent that the rainfall is greater here than in other areas around Annapurna.  We walked through a lush forest of large hardwoods and conifers, rhododendrons and bamboo.  At lower elevations (we were between 2200 and 3200 metres) it seemed like a cool temperature jungle.  At one point we saw a troop of black faced langur monkeys.  They are a fairly large monkey, but they flew through the canopy with abandon.

The other notable feature was the presence of so many other trekkers.  I had no idea this is such a popular area.  I was told by the Annapurna Conservation Area Project officer in Ghasa (on the Annapurna Circuit) that about 60 trekkers a day passed by the checkpoint.  Today you could have seen that many in half an hour.  Most are on treks of a few days duration, travelling in organized groups with guides and porters.  There were also several groups of young Nepalis, segregated by gender.  They were making so much noise as they walked, and reputedly at night as well, that Matthew and I walked a little beyond Tatopani to a lodge outside Chiule.  Most of the trekkers turn onto a different trail at Tadapani, so tomorrow should be quieter on the trail.

Part of the appeal of this area is that we are beyond the roads.  Everything around us that is not naturally occurring has been brought in on the back of a donkey, horse or human.  It is sobering to think of as you guzzle a Coke, because a man, at considerable effort, could only carry about 60 of them at a time.  That Coke is of course more expensive, as it should be.  At one point we saw two young men, each struggling down the trail with a single 10 foot 8x8 wooden post. They said each weighed 30 to 40 kilograms.  It puts a completely different perspective on building construction.

Friday, November 23, 2018

Tatopani to Ghorepani

Today Matthew and I climbed a net 1600 metres to Ghorepani.  This is the biggest climb on the Annapurna Circuit.  We felt very strong at first, sucking in the viscous and oxygen rich air at 1200 metres.  The last hour, with fatigue and thinner air, was more difficult.  It took us almost seven hours to do this stage, including an unprecedented two stops for soft drinks.  We generally don’t have lunch, but the sugar in the Coke was a welcome stimulus.  We met a young trekker who was carrying a 25 kg pack.  It would take more than sugar to push me and that behemoth up today’s slope.

The Annapurna Circuit ends with a day’s walk down to Naya Pul from Ghorepani.  However, we will be linking with the Annapurna Sanctuary trek, so we part company with the Circuit tomorrow morning.

Ghorepani is a very popular trekking halt because of its proximity to Poon Hill, a short trekking goal that provides good views of Dhaulagiri, Annapurna, Machhapuchhare (the fish tail mountain), and other peaks.  The composition of the trekking crowd is different here, with more young party types, and a preponderance of trekkers on organized tours.  

The quality of the accommodation in Ghorepani is very good, particularly considering that it does not have road access.  Before dinner we were each presented with hot face cloths, an unprecedented and welcome touch of luxury.  When we asked how much our bright double room would cost, our hostess put her finger over her lips until two other guests were out of earshot.  She whispered “$2.50”.  I think the package tour guests are paying a great deal more, or perhaps she fancies Matthew.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

Ghasa to Tatopani

Today all four of us descended 800 metres to a land of bananas and oranges.  The first half of the day we walked on extraordinary trails cut into the sidehill above the river, or rising or falling on stone staircases. I frequently imagined that we were walking on an Inca road.  The second half of the day was more of a trudge, with the noise of construction and traffic on the road on the other bank of the river.

Our destination today was Tatopani, which means “hot water” in Nepali.  True to the name, there is an abundance of natural hot spring water at an outdoor facility.  It was a treat to soak for an hour in the 37 degree water.  It’s a shame there weren’t hot springs at altitude, when we were more desperate for warmth.

Tomorrow sees a parting of the ways of our group of four.  Rick and Don have decided to take transport to Chitwan, a UNESCO designated national park near the  border with India.  There is the possibility of seeing rhinos, elephants, tigers, and myriad other animals.

In response to my query as to what he wanted to do, Matthews said “This is a trekking trip, let’s trek”.  With eight more days that we can trek, we are going to go as far as we can into the Annapurna Sanctuary.  This is a separate trek that we can access from Tatopani.

Wednesday, November 21, 2018

Marpha to Ghasa

We have walked 5 hours each of the past two days, mostly on trails on the opposite side of the valley from the road.  We started in conifer forests, but now that we have dropped to 2000 metres, we are walking through bamboo and other subtropical plants. It is so nice to feel warm again.

Dhaulagiri, at over 8000 metres, has dominated the landscape for the past two days.  It seems to rise directly behind the town of Larjung, where we stayed last night.  When I stepped outside the hotel this morning I looked up, way up, to see first light illuminating the top 100 metres of this great pyramid of rock and ice.  Magical.

We came across a couple of large, black yaks in a village this morning.  One of them was standing in the sun and looked particularly striking.  As I moved towards him for a photo the other one made a short charge towards me.  I’d like to say I pulled out my red sweatshirt and yelled “toro”, but the truth is I almost loaded my pants.  Matthew and I scuttled away, looking back over our shoulders.  Sorry, no pictures.

The accommodation on this side of the pass has been noticeably more comfortable that what was on offer in the Marsyangdi valley.  Spacious, ensuite rooms are available, some with solar showers that are actually warm. Last night, for the first time, we had a brazier full of charcoal placed under our dining table.  The warmth in the otherwise unheated and chilly room was heavenly.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Muktinath to Marpha

Having crossed the Thorung La we are now in another drainage, that of the Kali Gandaki.  It is much dryer than the Marsyangdi valley that we were in before the pass.  It also seems much more prosperous.  The Kali Gandaki is a broader valley so the road construction has been more successful in producing a reasonably good road.  Fortunately, the Annapurna circuit trail often leaves the road and wanders through less accessible towns and countryside.

Don has rejoined us.  He flew from Pokhara to Jomsom this morning and walked today’s short stage to Marpha.  He is still suffering from a cold, as we all are, but it is great to have him back.

Marpha is an old but well organized town.  It is surrounded by apple orchards, which find their way into a variety of products such as dried apples, apple cider, and apple brandy.  The town is dominated by a large monastery with excellent paintings, some 400 years old, and a great view over the well-used rooftops of the town.